Saturday, October 9, 2010

Dog Years

This morning I woke up with my dog curled up on top of my body under the covers of my bed.  It's getting cold enough that we have come to depend on shared mutual body warmth to get us through the nights.  The dog weighs 28 pounds, yet I'm amazed how much heat he puts out--better than an electric blanket, I kid you not.

On Monday my dog Tom Ripley turns fourteen years old.  Even though I am not the type of person who considers his dog his child, I can't help but think that Ripley would be in ninth grade at school right now if he were a child.  Fourteen is old for a whippet--about 78 in human years, so his maturity stretched past mine some five years ago.  And in the past year or two we have had some touch-and-go days, where mentally I was preparing myself to see him off.  Lately, though, he has been fine--not the leaping marvel he was several years ago, but still a quietly active dog, who enjoys his treats and walks.

My dog years stretch from the day I picked him up at eight weeks old, early December of 1996 in Savannah, to the present, in Durham, North Carolina.  He was born almost exactly a year after my mother's death (that sad anniversary was yesterday), and I suspect my motivation for getting a dog then, some thirteen years after my last dog, was partly to fill the loneliness I felt after a parent's death, even a parent who was already mentally lost to Alzheimer's-like stroke symptoms some years before, and three years after the breakup of what was probably my most significant human relationship as an adult.

There's nothing objectively special about Ripley.  He's the mute companion that other dogs are to their masters, Ripley more mute than others, since he so seldom barks.  And like other dog owners, I can testify to the weird telepathy that develops between human and dog over years--a language the dog trains the master to recognize as the master trains the dog to recognize simple monosyllabic commands.  As a puppy, Ripley used to sit with his back to the door when he needed to go outside.  Over the years, that signal has been refined and pared down to just a certain barely detectable flicker of light in his eyes, which I cannot describe and which apparently few other people can see at all.  That is if "light" is the right word, since that "look" also has the power to wake me from a sound sleep.

In my imagination, Ripley represents not just himself but also all the friends, family, and lovers I will never see again, but whose images remain close because Ripley's eyes have seen them too.  That, of course, is my sentimentality carrying me away--but dog ownership is itself convicting proof of sentimentality in a man or woman, so there is no escaping the charge:  I am a sentimental guy.  Buried under my dry ironic pessimism and icy layers of asociability and indifference is a belief that my dog means something--this coming from a guy who is not convinced that all of human history means anything, given the immense scope of the cosmos.

And, yes, we will be celebrating Ripley's birthday on Monday.  I am a gay middle-aged man, after all.  Freeze-dried liver treats and beer.

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